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Intelligent Mail Raises Complex Issues

Does everybody remember the report of the President’s Commission on the Postal Service? For those who don’t pay attention to advisory committee reports in general, you should know that most federal advisory committee reports disappear without a trace after receiving cursory attention from the press and affected communities.

Because there was real interest in parts of the postal world for reform legislation, this report received more than the normal 15 minutes of fame. Readers of DM News followed the ups and downs of legislation in the last Congress, including its demise when Congress adjourned.

Today’s subject is not the legislation that almost passed. One of the commission’s recommendations that had strong privacy implications received no serious consideration in Congress. It is still worth a second look.

The commission recommended establishing an “intelligent mail” system that would enable tracking of each item that entered the postal stream, including the identity of the mailer. The commission based its proposal partly on security needs, suggesting that a fully identifiable mail system would make it easy to find the next anthrax mailer.

Mail tracking presents many problems. The idea that better identification means better security is just plain silly. It isn’t necessary to reach privacy concerns before the idea fails for lack of effectiveness. Enforcement of sender-identification rules would be hard without draconian measures. Any identifiable mail system would be easy to spoof or circumvent. How would anyone stop resale of personalized stamps on eBay or otherwise?

The idea of tracking brought the privacy community out in force. A principal objection is that tracking would mean the end of anonymous mail. Commercial mailers may not care much about anonymity, but personal, political, activist and other mailers feel strongly otherwise. Anonymous communications are an American tradition with constitutional protections.

The privacy community’s objections have merit. However, several facets of the intelligent mail proposal are worthy of further exploration. Let’s begin by considering the database that would result from mail tracking. If the U.S. Postal Service tracks both the sender and recipient of mail, the resulting database would show every item that each mailer sends and each recipient receives.

What a valuable and threatening database that would be, with commercial, political and law enforcement applications. Remember that the protection of First-Class mail covers only the content of the envelope and not the information on the envelope. A mailer/recipient database with information from the outside of the envelope could be used for all kinds of purposes without the need for court orders. Police could track mail without raising Fourth Amendment issues.

Even more interesting is the possibility that the USPS could collect and use information about the success or failure of any marketing or fundraising campaign. For each mailer and recipient, the postal service would have a lifetime record of mail sent and received. The routine compilation of the data could drive mailers away from using the mail, even for legal activities.

Imagine a question at a Senate confirmation hearing for the president’s nominee for a cabinet post: “I see that you mailed a letter to Penthouse when you were 17. Would you tell us more about what you mailed and why?”

Imagine if that type of questioning were allowed at divorce or child-custody hearings. Or job interviews. What if everyone were accountable forever for each letter mailed?

An intelligent mail system could have positive consequences for privacy, too. Individuals have demanded more control over their telephones and e-mail. We have a no-call list for telemarketing, and spam filters are common. What if snail mailbox owners had the same control?

An intelligent mail system could let individuals decide what mail reaches their mailbox. We already have a law that allows people to seek a mail prohibitory order for mail they find offensive. The procedure is cumbersome, the USPS hates it and it gets little use. But if the intelligent mail system gave individuals the ability to control their own mail, mailing instructions could be fully automated and less expensive to implement.

A recipient could decide that he doesn’t want any more mail from his ex-wife. Another individual could decide that she doesn’t want to get any more catalogs from the XYZ company. An individual who no longer collects stamps might veto all stamp catalogs. Those who hate junk mail could reject all Standard mail. The possibilities are endless, and not necessarily attractive from a USPS business perspective.

Any new intelligent mail features would present complicated policy choices. Would an individual’s mail prohibitory instructions be conveyed to the mailer, to the mailing community in general, to law enforcement agencies or to the world in general? Or would the principal result be an order to the USPS not to deliver mail? User mailbox controls could drive mailers crazy and could undermine the use of the mail to send legal and other notices.

Intelligent mail has both pro- and anti-privacy features. It is a complex idea. I have no difficulty rejecting the mail tracking on the grounds that the bad strongly outweighs the good. I don’t expect the idea to be revived in the current Congress. The postal legislation has enough problems as it is.

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